|Junior Bentley holds the reins at Sandgate's Independence Day parade on July 4, 1983. Photo courtesy of John Hess.|
Today was not the first time I had attended a funeral in the little white church nestled in the folds ofthe Green River valley. I try to arrive a little early and take my favored place; a seat in the last pew on the left.
The far view from the window shows a curve in the road, a gentle hill rising to the left and a sweep of meadow dipping to the bank of the Green River on the right. The nearer view is a jelly jar on the sill with a single orange blossom and a rime of small ladybug and cluster fly carcasses trapped in the spaces between the outside and inside panes. From my seat I can both see and hear the tick-tocking of the big, rectangular oak Regulator clock ... its gleaming gold pendulum marking off the minutes and hours and days.
It is a setting ripe for metaphors. But I resist. Instead, I watch the simple little white church fill. There are men and women of all ages and walks of life; natty sports coats mix with grease-stained Carhartts, the sound of walkers and oxygen tanks mix with the cries of a child. Black is the predominate color; that and the Amish-style beards (chin whiskers but no mustache) lend an other-worldly air. Not one person is using a phone or texting as the seats fill, men shuffling to make space for the women to sit.
This is a funeral almost devoid of tears for, as a group, these attendees are not given to crying and the deceased had lived a long and good life. His recent distress was now over, a distress eased by care of those who loved him and by faith. It was, instead, a time to mourn a way of life fast disappearing from this valley. And to honor and remember a man whose very presence, existence, had exemplified the old values of the Vermont farmer with generations preceding him to the Vermont sod.
"Junior" as he was called -- even at 92 years of age -- was the quintessential Vermonter, living his entire life in the house in which he was born. He was spare of body and spare of words. His deeds were what spoke and it is clear that he was quicker to give than to take. He was bound to the land, lock and key, and the bounty it gave forth, decades before it was fashionable to be so. There were few things he did not revere that came from the land (with the possible exception of zucchini and burdocks).
I was not part of Junior's inner circle. But he was always there, his beloved animals standing like a welcoming committee at the portals of the town, his antique farm equipment coaxed into service both practical and ceremonial, and his nod or shake of the head lending credence to local political matters.
One of his inner circle told me, as we left the little white church, that Junior had once pointed to the cemetery on the hill and said that it was full of people who thought they were indispensable.
Well, maybe so. But this man and his gifts to the community come close ... like a belief in the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny, we cherished the almost unbelievable, almost mythical, way this man lived and subtly or not so subtly shaped our lives. Did he know, when he was alive, this effect he had?
I doubt it. I do not doubt that he would find it beyond comical that I equate him with the tooth fairy and the Easter bunny. He would be much more comfortable joining in the fellowship of food than philosophizing.
The long table was groaning with salads, cold cuts, tilting towers of sliced bread, mac ‘n’ cheese and colorful Jell-Os. There were no fewer than a dozen kinds of chocolate brownies and cakes. I think he would have loved the people gathered there, loved the food, and loved the community that he embraced and that had come to say "good-bye" wishing with all their hearts that the afterlife was abundant with fertile fields and critters to accompany him ... a place where words mattered little but deeds spoke volumes ...